using dynamite for lack of paint: alex broner on “cities in motion”

Ever since I posted on SimCity and SimCity 4 people have been telling me I must try Cities in Motion.  But when you have two jobs and you're already devoting hours to a blog and a book and a remodel, there is only so much time for computer games.  Fortunately, Alex Broner has boldly gone there in a guest post, so I don't have to!


CitiesinMotion_Image3In Cities in Motion (a game by Colossal Order, published by Paradox Interactive), one assumes the role of a CEO of a transit company tasked with providing transit to a particular city. In the campaign mode the cities are all based on specific cities at specific historical periods, Berlin during the cold war for example. There is also a “sandbox” mode in which you can play additional cities including player created cities and fictional cities.

Your transit company operates without subsidies for the most part, though there are “missions” which often offer monetary rewards for their completion. The most common mission is to connect two or more places together with a transit line.

In the campaign mode there are certain required missions which you must complete in order to “win” the scenario and unlock further scenarios.

Your transit company has a variety of different vehicle types which it can use to meet the needs of the city’s residents: Buses, trams, Metro, waterbuses, and helecopters.  There is (premium) downloadable content that adds electric trolleybuses, cable cars, and monorails.

CitiesinMotion_Image2Your success of failure in the game depends on finding ways to efficiently provide service connecting residents with destinations such as workplaces, shopping, leisure, and government. “Leisure” seems to include regional transportation hubs such as inter-city rail stations and airports. Like a real transit company, you must consider expenses for capital improvements such as stations and vehicles and also operational expenses such as labor and fuel/electricity.

This is not a city building game but the connection between density and transit service is made clear by the simple fact that even though you can build a subway to rural or suburban area, very few people will ride it.  The connection between service levels, frequency, and customer satisfaction is made clear by the “wait time” indicator. If the wait time on your transit lines is too long then customers will grow dissatisfied and eventually leave the station. Also, since all infrastructure such as stations and rails has maintenance cost, creating under-utilized infrastructure leads to a poor cost-revenue ratio.

17_0To be successful your agency must take into account the layout of the city and where different groups of people want to go: working class people work at working class jobs, students go to the university, professionals to the offices, and so on. Then you must make choices between vehicle types and network arrangements and put it all together into a profitable enterprise.

All of this is pretty realistic but as I played I immediately began noticing some major problems. The most notable problem is that the “walk shed” for each stop or station is different for each type of vehicle. The game will have residents walk much farther for metro service than they will for buses or trams, no matter how poor the metro service is or how good the buses and trams.

An additional problem is that there is nothing like transit lanes or transit signal priority for buses and trams. The streets of Cities in Motion have various amounts of traffic and in heavy traffic your vehicles will bunch up, depriving you of much needed revenue and making your riders unhappy. One's tools for dealing with this are limited: trams can run on unoccupied ground such as across plazas or on grass. Often in the game I find myself building a tram because there’s a long park or other way to bypass congestion. One can demolish buildings that get in the way of your trams but not build roads or even transit lanes, placing one in the bizarre situation of reaching for the dynamite for lack of paint. In combination the limited walk shed and lack of prioritization tools such as transit lanes means that the game very quickly becomes about building Metro systems. Not only is this unrealistic it’s also quite boring.

Additional annoying features:

  • Cyclical economic changes causes one to have to adjust ticket prices and labor pay rates constantly for each type of vehicle and 5 types of employees. There’s a mod that allows one to do this automatically but it would have been nice if that had been included in the base game.
  • Residents are drawn to transit in an almost fanatical fashion, they will navigate around any barrier to reach a station that’s close enough by straight line distance. One is not encouraged to situate stations in places realistically accessible. The routing algorithm of residents is poor meaning that they’ll pile up on the platform of one metro station even if there’s an empty platform with comparable services right nearby. 
  • Metro trains try to get 100% full before departing, even if this means holding up the empty train behind them. 
  • Finally, one is unable to combine either metro or tram vehicles to form longer trains (or construct longer platforms).

On the whole I give the game a B- for gameplay and a C for simulation value. It obsesses over certain aspects of transit (different types of customers, different types of workers, etc) while failing to address some really important ones. It teaches some important things about transit (frequency, density, operation costs) while furthering our confusion about the relationship between technology and levels of service. I would love for the makers of the game to fix some of these problems either through downloadable content or a new release. We need clearer thinking when it comes to transit and while this game doesn’t quite provide it, it very easily could.

[Alex Broner is a graduate student working on his Masters of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii with an expected graduation date of December 2012. He is also an intern writer/researcher for the Sightline Institute.  His professional interests are in transportation, landuse, and urban design. Alex is passionate about creating enjoyable urban places where it is easy and safe to walk, bicycle, and take transit. His personal interests include cycling, science fiction novels, computer games, and dodgeball.]

16 Responses to using dynamite for lack of paint: alex broner on “cities in motion”

  1. Alex Broner July 30, 2012 at 10:58 pm #

    One frustrating thing about the missions in the game is that they’re often too easy to trick. Often in order to “set up a line” all one has to do is have two stops and one bus for exactly one day. It’s nothing like real life where there are all sorts of considerations that cause one to run unprofitable service (Geographic coverage, equity, political pressure) and canceling this service is difficult if not impossible! The missions could have been used to simulate these kind of pressures but instead they let the player off easy.

  2. Dexter Wong July 31, 2012 at 1:07 am #

    Here is an odd coincidence, the name of this game is very close to the campaign theme of the incumbent Honolulu mayor, “Honolulu, a city in motion,” which plays up the large city aspects of the region.

  3. Greg Costikyan July 31, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    It’s primarily an urban rail sim, not a transit sim — owes more to Railroad Tycoon than Sim City. As such, it’s a nice title; I’d prefer more transit choices too (including bike lanes and BRT), but I suspect there are more gamers who are rail nuts than gamers who are interested in transpo issues.

  4. Matthew July 31, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    I had high hopes for this game when it came out, but it turned out to be badly flawed in many of the ways you point out. They fixed a couple of things, but not really enough, and the developers have been missing on the rest, despite responding to the message board.
    The buses run on fixed routes, defeating the point of buses; they cannot go around other cars. The buses cannot turn around on the street or in a yard, which means you must find some roads to form a loop. The trams cannot change ends, which requires sometimes difficult loops at each terminal. It can be difficult to build tracks on terrain, and unpredictable whether or not it will let you connect two segments. Ground-level metro is basically useless because it won’t let you build grade crossings anymore, and the stations are absurdly large and unwieldy. There’s no way to build grade-separated junctions either, so branching lines cause delays. Ferry boats often have trouble with routing, especially with multiple stops.
    Then there’s operations: the vehicles dwell far too long; it appears that they designate citizens to board and then wait as long as necessary for them to push through the crowd. So bunching is unavoidable. There’s no way to setup a schedule or headways to maintain. If you set the fares really high, into the red, you’ll do fine on cash and popularity. If you attempt to keep fares low, it doesn’t really help. If you offer redundant services to the same stop, citizens will not automatically switch between them, so trunk lines are almost useless.
    I find the info maps to be completely unintelligible. You can ask for worker’s homes or offices, but the resulting color map is just a mess. I don’t use it at all. Not needed really, you can do well just by connecting important-looking buildings.
    The missions range from funny to completely inane. Sometimes you can complete a mission using connections, other times not — it’s not clear when it is acceptable. I just deal with the inane ones by creating a throwaway bus route, as Alex detailed, which is silly but gets through it.
    Other oddities: the San Francisco map has cable cars but not trolley buses. But the New York map has trolley buses. Nevermind that SF is defined by trolley buses, while NYC has always refused to put up wires for anything!
    One funny thing is that they could have done so much more with the game. There’s a mod which allows you to take the viewpoint of a citizen, walk around, and ride your own vehicles. You can test your own transit system as a passenger. Why that is not part of the default game, I don’t know. Certainly, all the heavy lifting was done by the developers to make that possible, the mod just changes the camera viewpoint. There’s even a lot of art you miss out on by not installing this mod, fine details which constitute impressive work by the artists, but cannot be appreciated without the close-up camera angle.
    In terms of realistic behavior, I’m much more impressed by the much older game Simutrans and it’s new cousin Simutrans-experimental. Plus, it’s free.

  5. BBnet3000 July 31, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    I agree with this article pretty much. In some cities in some time periods youre definitely forced to build a metro in specific places, because the surface traffic is an issue you just cant get past (meaning no matter how high transit ridership is, theres still traffic, and your transit vehicles only make it worse).
    Having transit-specific lanes (even if it were expensive) would be a huge benefit to the game. uI also wish there was a way to have streetcars have underground segments instead of having to build a metro.
    I think the different walksheds for different modes is essentially correct. I think bus and streetcar are the same (streetcar may be slightly larger, I cant remember, but metro is definitely nearly double the radius of both).
    But yeah, as you said, the game is all about feeding the metro. Every time I start a new scenario I just borrow as much money as possible to build a metro, which is pretty much the only way to play the game to win.

  6. Nathan Williams July 31, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

    there is nothing like transit lanes or transit signal priority for buses and trams.
    Well, that accurately describes the situation for most North American transit, so I’m not sure I see a simulation problem here, exactly….

  7. Morgan Wick July 31, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    Sounds like it has many of the same issues as Traffic Giant.

  8. Jeffrey Bridgman July 31, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    I found that this game encouraged loops… rather than a trunk down a main avenue, it seemed to work better (from a coverage/cost viewpoint), to offer loops that would lead to a metro station…. that really made all my networks feel unrealistic.

  9. Alex Broner July 31, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    @Nathan Williams: The base game is set in Europe. There is premium downloadable content (which I have not purchased) that adds North American cities. While it is true that North American cities tend not to have transit lanes for buses as often as European cities do, it’s not unheard of.
    North American cities do often have surface light rail lines. This is something that one cannot do on streets in Cities in Motion because one cannot give Trams exclusive right of way.
    Part of the appeal of this kind of game is the ability to work with some of the tools available to real life professionals (and many of the same constraints) but also have the ability to find creative solutions to various problems. One cannot do this without the ability to dedicate right of way. Again, it’s paradoxical that the game designers foresaw the need and provided the ability to demolish buildings but not to lay down paint.

  10. Ben Smith August 7, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    One thing worth mentioning which it does right is that buildings can actually be MIXED USE! While I don’t know if this can be said for the level editor, actual buildings will provide a mix of dwellings and employment, obviously more so in the central city districts.
    Overall, I found the game quite enjoyable. My biggest complaint is that metros and trams are too separated. While this seems to be the way they are generally operated, it would be nice if you could run trams underground and elevated to create light metro lines.
    On this note, while you cannot dedicate lanes to transit, there are options to create tramways. Many major roads have grassy medians, allowing for ample space for a right of way. Also open patches near roads can be used exclusively for transit, and while I wouldn’t recommend you go overboard, you can also demolish buildings allowing for your streetcars to pass through uninterrupted.
    Another thing I noticed, is that the more frequent the stops are, the more changeover in passengers, meaning more money coming in. This makes me wonder if needing less tax subsidies plays a part in influencing stop spacing. Perhaps a topic for a future article Jarrett?
    All in all, despite the criticisms, I found this game VERY engrossing and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in transit planning and city building, and has a LOT of spare time on their hands. If you still have concerns, every few months it seems to go on sale on Steam allowing you to pick it up for dirt cheap.

  11. Nscale7 August 8, 2012 at 3:18 am #

    One of the issues that bugs me is that the transportation/land-use connection is only one-way; that is, the land use influences the transportation you provide, but that transportation does not influence the land-use. While the cities do grow over time, with both infill and greenfield development, the urban development is all pre-scripted, not dynamic. So if you build a metro line into a greenfield on one edge of the city, it doesn’t attract development; it remains a greenfield, while development takes place elsewhere. And if you build services to an area you know is going to develop, your rail infrastructure is demolished to make way for the development.
    As for being unable to repurpose travel lanes to build bus lanes or LRT, that’s actually pretty realistic; The GAO’s July 2012 report on Bus Rapid Transit found only three of the 20 US BRT systems had dedicated lanes, so in real-world cities, dedicated ROW for busses is the exception. Transit signal priority might help, but would require the traffic signals in the game to actually work in the first place, and if the traffic signals worked there wouldn’t be nearly as much traffic congestion to contend with.
    Still, it’s not bad for what it is; it is a fun little game. More broadly, I can envision technology like eventually being used as a public outreach tool, to help engage the public in real-world transit planning, somewhat like Metro’s Build-a-System tool.
    -Chase Ballew,
    Planning Student,
    Portland State University

  12. Alex Broner August 9, 2012 at 12:50 am #

    @Ben Smith: It’s true that grassy medians allow trams their own right of way, however these grassy medians are not something the player has control over and most roads don’t have them. I found myself searching for these each time I see a map for the first time. Even on the maps that have more of them one is still frustrated by segments of non-median road in which ones trams once again get caught in traffic. The most extreme traffic can suck in a large number of ones vehicles. Were that one could create grassy medians and other kinds of transit right of way rather than relying upon finding it!
    To be clear, I found the game to have enjoyment value in spite of it being deeply frustrating in key respects. It would have been much more fun if one had more robust surface transit options like transit lanes and signal priority. Without these tools one quickly ends up staring at the blank surface of the underground map. Viewed from below all the different cities start to blend together in my mind.
    @Chase Ballew: again I will reiterate that base game location is in EUROPE. The only two North American cities offered as official content are San Francisco and New York City (offered in DLC which I have not played) both of which in real life have dedicated lanes for light rail and also buses. Also since this is a creative simulator as opposed to a model of real world conditions then the deployment of dedicated lanes should be something the player may experiment with. Most likely the game makers ran up against constraints of time and money and decided not to invest the needed effort to make transit lanes work in the game. This is unfortunate.

  13. Robbie August 10, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    Thanks for the tip, I’ve always been a HUGE fan of Sim City, but I’ve never heard of Cities in Motion. I think I will give it a try, but judging from this post and the numerous flaws of the game I think I won’t have as many sleepless nights as when SC4 came out.

  14. Nathanael August 20, 2012 at 6:40 am #

    “An additional problem is that there is nothing like transit lanes or transit signal priority for buses and trams. The streets of Cities in Motion have various amounts of traffic and in heavy traffic your vehicles will bunch up, depriving you of much needed revenue and making your riders unhappy. One’s tools for dealing with this are limited: trams can run on unoccupied ground such as across plazas or on grass. Often in the game I find myself building a tram because there’s a long park or other way to bypass congestion. One can demolish buildings that get in the way of your trams but not build roads or even transit lanes, placing one in the bizarre situation of reaching for the dynamite for lack of paint.”
    This actually sounds disturbingly realistic, in political terms. “What, you want to close a ROAD? NOOOOO! We can’t let you do that! Demolish buildings? Sure, fine, no problem…”

  15. Nathanael August 20, 2012 at 6:44 am #

    “In terms of realistic behavior, I’m much more impressed by the much older game Simutrans and it’s new cousin Simutrans-experimental. Plus, it’s free.”
    I’ve been doing some programming on Simutrans for fun. It’s not just gratis, it’s libre — free software. 🙂 This means, over the years with the contribution of many programmers and artists and so forth, it has become more and more possible to make it approximate a realistic transportation simulation. (Though it isn’t that realistic out of the box with the default pak64.)

  16. Kenny March 22, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

    One other thing I’ve noticed in playing this game recently is that passengers seem not to care how many connections they have to make – they only care about waiting at a stop. I often found a passenger waiting at one of my stops that was going to a building that she could only get to by riding three buses, a tram, and another bus.